One Ingredient, Many Ways: Fennel

Fennel Baked in Milk

In this creamy dish, the fennel is braised in milk until it becomes tender.Todd Coleman

The first time I tasted fennel - in a gratin of fennel bulbs softened in stock and cream, resting under a golden Parmesan cheese crust - I was living in a castle in Italy. It was the summer after college, when magical things like a claw foot tub in the bathroom and a view like a Bob Ross landscape painting out the window are possible.

I lived in that particular paradise while volunteering on an organic vineyard in Tuscany, where I spent long days tangled in the grape vines, fueled by industrial-strength shots of espresso. At the end of each day, all the vineyard volunteers sat for an extended meal that we'd prepared together. Simple pasta dishes and creamy risottos reigned, enhanced with vegetables from the kitchen garden, and we washed it all down with bottles of house wine. After dinner we'd talk and play poker, snacking on fresh bread drizzled with olive oil and sea salt, and sipping still more espresso spiked with fiery grappa.

After one bite, I knew that fennel would be a lifelong friend.